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"Pyron’s concentrated photovoltaic systems, which float on water, follow the sun’s rays"

Written by Padma Nagappan

Pyron Solar sensors that convert sunlight into electricity

Lizz Ederer, a technician at Pyron Solar,
holds one of the company’s sensors that
convert sunlight into electricity. Pyron
occupies a niche within the solar niche.

SAN DIEGO — Most people know what a traditional solar panel system looks like because they see them on rooftops or mounted on the ground to capture sunlight and convert it into energy.

But there is a growing field in solar technology that is more complex, actually following the sun east to west.

Concentrated photovoltaic — or CPV — systems continuously track the sun, capturing sunlight and converting it into highly concentrated solar energy.

And a local company does it with a twist — of water, that is.

Pyron Solar, a Vista-based CPV startup, uses water to support its array so that the system actually floats, helping to cool the array and make it more efficient.

It’s a nifty concept that has yet to take off for several reasons.

CPV as an industry is an emerging field and has yet to become commercially viable. It also has some location requirements — it works well only in regions with high, direct sunlight. And Pyron’s use of water makes for a niche within that segment.

Pyron, founded in 2006, uses an acrylic concentrator lens with precise circular grooves that magnify sunlight and raise the concentration by 1,200 times, or the equivalent of 1,200 suns.

“I can melt the pavement with this in two seconds,” said Stephanie Rosenthal, president of Pyron Solar.

The company wants to go after utility and commercial-scale solar projects.

CPV industry

CPV systems track the sun by rotating and tilting, in a process called dual-axis tracking. Pyron says its technology has several advantages.

Other CPV companies have ground-mounted systems and use larger, more-expensive motors for the tracking, but Pyron uses a small, inexpensive motor similar to those in toy cars.

Their technology requires more land per installed megawatt compared to Pyron, and their concentration ratios are about half that of Pyron’s, said Rosenthal.

But they also have industry certification, many more installed projects around the world and are large compared to Pyron, which has one pilot plant at San Diego Gas & Electric’s Mission Valley location and 10 employees.

Rosenthal is from Germany, where she worked in research and development at an ultraviolet lighting equipment firm. Then she met Pyron’s founder, Johannes Laing, who asked her to come on board in 2007, so she moved to San Diego.

Bakersfield-based Ellis Energy Investments acquired Pyron in 2009 when it ran out of its initial money and Laing left the firm.

Outdoor R&D lab

Pyron uses water to support its solar panels, helping cool the array and make it more efficient

Pyron uses water to support its solar panels, helping
cool the array and make it more efficient. Pyron Solar

Pyron then began installing a 25-kilowatt system on land provided by SDG&E. It completed the installation last year.

“It was an outdoor R&D lab that helped us work on making our technology more reliable and corrosion-proof,” Rosenthal said.

SDG&E said the prototype has been an experiment in progress, so it does not have enough data for a performance assessment. Pyron is now replacing the first-generation modules with an improved second-generation version.

Placing the module in water led to leakage and corrosion damage, which the company has worked on. Pyron says the new version corrects those concerns.

The new version, which has an efficiency (the percentage of sunlight it converts into energy) of 28 percent, can better withstand wear and tear, is corrosion resistant even with salt water, prevents water leaks and has improved weatherproofing.

Locating in water has its pros and cons, which experts say will provide Pyron advantages but also location restrictions.

Rosenthal pointed out all the water bodies where it could be located — drinking water reservoirs, wastewater treatment facilities, golf-course ponds, hydroelectric dams, irrigation dams, fish farms, recreational ponds and lakes — increasing its potential.

Solar market and technology consultant Andy Skumanich, however, noted that Pyron’s technology has implementation constraints, which will limit expansion.

“CPV needs high irradiance or lots of intense light. And Pyron uses water, so they will be a niche within a niche,” Skumanich said.

Still, he agreed that Pyron’s costs will be much lower than for other CPV technologies, but this will have to be demonstrated over time.

“It’s different from other CPV technology. Pyron has a unique value arena. It would be hard to imagine them in a major utility scale mode, but for capture of unutilized energy, they’d be perfect,” Skumanich said.

Competing with PV

There are other issues with CPV technology in general, which have held it back from competing with traditional photovoltaics or PV.

Skumanich does not think CPV as an industry will offer an alternative to PV, except in regions of high direct normal incidence of sunlight, or DNI.

The DNI would have to be greater than 7, so it would be suited to high altitudes, desert regions and bright sunlight areas without haze and particles.

To illustrate, San Diego has a DNI factor of about 6 while Anza Borrego is about 8, when there’s no dust blowing.

CPV could be commercially viable in five years and experience single-digit growth, said Skumanich. “It has to prove itself by showing the necessary reliability and cost parity with PV. Still, it is unlikely to take over from PV where DNI is less than 6.”

But with China entering the solar market, costs continue to come down for PV.

“Regular PV is a moving target and the prices are dropping very rapidly, so the CPV industry in general, and these guys in particular, will need to keep shooting at lower and lower costs,” Skumanich said.

Validating technology

Pyron will apply for certification from the International Electrotechnical Commission. Pyron’s chief technology officer, Duncan Earl, and chief engineer, Joe Bentley, who came on board last year, will help ramp up the technology for commercialization.

The company has partnered with an Australian manufacturer that will build a portable assembly line for Pyron, which plans to put its manufacturing close to wherever potential projects are located.

The company’s next step is putting up more projects like the pilot plant at SDG&E and validating its technology.

“I want CPV as an industry to succeed, because it’s the best way for large-scale utility projects,” Rosenthal said. “CPV is on the cusp of going from infancy to growth, so succeeding as an industry helps with grid parity. I think we’re getting closer.”

Padma Nagappan is a San Diego freelance writer.

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